Barely a few months into his first term, rookie Green Hills Councilman Sean McGuire was faced with a difficult choice: He could keep his word to a constituent, who he says misled him about community support for his proposed development, or acquiesce to the will of a few noisy neighbors, who were opposing a project recommended by their own community plan.
Ultimately, McGuire sided with the neighbors, and elected to indefinitely defer a zoning change that had already passed two readings on Council and was supported by the Planning Commission.
According to e-mail records obtained by The City Paper, McGuire promised support for the zoning change on two separate occasions.
“I just made a mistake. I thought the support was there and I blew it,” said McGuire, who at 28 is Metro Council’s youngest member.
If nothing else, McGuire’s admission illustrates the foibles of a decades-old problem for developers, residents and elected officials who attempt to peaceably travel the path of development and rezoning in Nashville.
The zoning change in question was a Specific Plan development to bring eight cottage-style homes to Lombardy Avenue. The applicant was Steve Slone, a developer who lived on the Lombardy property with his wife.
Yet when rezoning legislation reached the brink of passing earlier this year, McGuire changed his mind and acquiesced to the concerns of vocal Lombardy Avenue neighbors, who have opposed Slone for more than two years.
“I’ve basically been screwed out of more than $40,000 because Councilman McGuire lied to my face,” Slone said.
In the beginning…
McGuire said he learned of the brewing zoning disagreement in 2007 when he was running unopposed for the vacant Green Hills-area Council seat. Before he was elected, McGuire was made aware by Lombardy area neighborhood association president Jean Dedman that residents opposed more density on the residential road.
Initially, Slone sought to put a 13-unit cottage-style development on the lot, which is 0.8 acres. Before he ever filed Specific Plan zoning, Slone knew neighbors would be wary of such density and proposed 10 units instead.
But the property was surrounded by multi-family developments on three sides, and apparently neighbors came to feel they had to draw a line in the sand to prevent the entire street from following suit.
In June of 2008, Slone told McGuire via e-mail that he would be filing an SP for eight units in an effort to meet the density concerns of Lombardy Neighbors.
“Well good, I’m glad you are leaning towards eight,” McGuire said in an e-mail to Slone. “That should hopefully provide some more yard for the houses and up the sale value. At this point, I feel like we’ve tried to gather the info from them. Like I told you, you are conforming to what they wanted and asked for, so, in my opinion, I have no other choice but to support it.”
At that point in the process, Slone went around to neighbors, at McGuire’s request, to earn support for his proposal. He spent the next several months working on designs and filed an SP for eight cottage-style units.
Slone returned to McGuire with signatures showing 2-to-1 support for his proposed development, although the signatures turned in by Slone remain a serious point of contention.
“I will support this SP,” McGuire told Slone in an e-mail dated Sept. 17, 2008. “You clearly abided by the wishes of the neighborhood. You are right in that you offered them an opportunity to give their input. While there may be some disagreement down the road as far as aesthetics are concerned (which there always is that disagreement), again I think in principle you have worked to design this according to the neighborhood’s wishes. You’re to be commended.”
Wrench in the spokes
In January of this year, the Planning Commission voted 7-2 to approve Slone’s eight-unit SP. But Dedman and the Lombardy Neighbors group remained adamantly opposed to the project.
“It was supposed to be the whole reason for having a Specific Plan development… to have developments that were in the character of the neighborhood,” Dedman said. “So we opposed it and then eventually he said he would reduce it to six units.”
Before Slone reduced his proposal to just six units, he worked with McGuire and the firm Roy Dale and Associates to alter the plan. Neighbors were concerned with issues like setback, and Slone made concessions so the three-story structures would stand 50 feet off the road.
Dedman said the average setback for the street is 65 feet, a contention Slone said isn’t true. Regardless, the final points of disagreement seemed to be 15 feet in setback and the difference between six units, which Slone proposed, and four units, for which the property was zoned.
Taking in the minute points of contention and the concessions made by the developer, for a second, and final time, McGuire offered his support for Slone’s revised plan.
“I’ve thought long and hard about this, and I am willing to support a zone change that would allow you to build six units,” McGuire said in an April 10, 2009 e-mail. “I also want the development to have at least a 40-foot setback… Again, this is the decision I have made and I am not going to change my mind.”
And for two readings on Council, McGuire stayed true to his word. Slone’s cottage-style development passed both readings, including the public hearing, and stood one vote away from becoming a reality.
For Slone, seeing the finish line come into focus was a major relief. He and his wife, Claire, purchased the property in 2002 for $225,000. In the ensuing seven years, the property value has reached $411,000 according to the 2009 property assessment.
Although Slone is a developer by trade — he owns the small-scale company New Day Development — the Lombardy Avenue project was a labor of love. The Slones even planned to move into one of the units with their newborn daughter.
“I thought I’d done everything the neighborhood had asked me to do in terms of reducing density and setback even more than what was asked,” Slone said.
‘They will have to accept it’
But Dedman and Lombardy Neighbors were still not sold on the proposal. Working diligently to drum up opposition, they presented a list of signatures of property owners showing 2-to-1 opposition to Slone’s proposal.
McGuire said the contradicting signature lists played a key role in his decision to defer the zoning legislation. According to McGuire, it was obvious that Slone misrepresented support for his project when he turned in the first list of supporters.
When McGuire reviewed the signature list provided by opposition, he saw names previously on Slone’s list of supporters. McGuire also realized many of Slone’s supporters from the list turned in months earlier were actually renters in nearby complexes.
It was at this point that McGuire made the decision to defer the SP zoning change indefinitely. This came despite the fact that he had promised in that same April e-mail to live with his decision to support the six units.
“This plan for six units will not make the neighborhood happy either, but I would tell them that this is also the decision I have made and they will have to accept it as well,” McGuire said.
With the zone change sitting on life support, McGuire acknowledges he was faced with the choice of keeping his word to Slone, who he believes misled him on support for the proposal, or abiding by the will of a neighborhood association worried that its street would be over-run with multi-family developments.
“I have too much money invested in this to just accept what Councilman McGuire has put me through,” Slone said, adding that he’s spent about $45,000 in planning department filing fees and design costs to date.
Slone’s property is surrounded on three sides by condominium developments and all the interested parties concede the land is a “transitional” lot.
“I think ultimately if I could go back and do it over again I would have tried harder to prevent him from filing for his SP application,” McGuire said. “The neighborhood didn’t want to meet with him so I was trying to be the go-between with him and this neighborhood.”
But Slone maintains, and e-mail records support his claim, that he tried to meet multiple times with the neighborhood. On more than one occasion Lombardy Neighbors held meetings to discuss the proposal without inviting Slone to attend.
At this point McGuire insists the proposal isn’t dead in the water, pointing out that he has deferred the legislation indefinitely instead of opting for a withdrawal. Slone has appropriate zoning to put a sub-divided, four-unit development on the lot, but he remains skeptical that would have any support.
“Even if I tried to subdivide it, they’d come up with a reason to oppose it,” Slone said. “It’s like Jean Dedman is the Council member and not McGuire.”
Dedman, for her part, seemed somewhat open to the possibility of a four-unit development. Asked what she thought the neighborhood association would ever support, Dedman said, “No change in zoning. Whatever they can do with the existing zoning.”
For Slone, he said such assurances carry little weight.